The Year The Earth Stood Still (1999)

By dean

     We're not dead.

     That's always good.

     But is music? Well, admire the introductory brevity and take a gander at Yet Another Best o' Year List and decide for your "gee, a bit of an anti-climax, no?" selves. Yes, here we (let's-watch-Dean-add-unnecessary-adjectives) go...

     10. THE FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE - Utopia Parkway

     After one of the best American debuts in ages, good ol' Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are back. This time with a more coherent piece of work focusing on suburban wet dreams and warm rides down your favourite street. Addictive, summery pop. Missing a pinnacle like their debut's gleeful "Leave The Biker" will always leave a hole, and lacking a truly eclectic pace will certainly avoid interminable longevity, but it's still -- undoubtedly -- a grin-drenched success.

     9. FREESTYLERS - We Rock Hard

     Really stupid Big Beat that's really not all that stupid. The MONKEY MAFIA-aping ragga and breakbeat decisions take the album away from the usual "let's put a party horn here" FATBOY SLIM clones, though it still retains its own voice well enough to create its own lines in the sand. Songs like "Here We Go," yeah, are a bit obnoxious. And appealing to the numbskulls in all of us doesn't always work. However, with such highs as "Freestyle Noize," "B-Boy Stance," and "Ruffneck" (not to mention the great, more jungle-influenced bonus tracks found on the American release), the album's a keeper. It should prove interesting to see if the band can grow out of this loud sandbox of theirs. Just hope that the damn kid who always gives you a wedgie doesn't show up this time.

     8. JEGA - Spectrum

     Now this is drum 'n bass. Sorta. Where the rest of the high-profile drum 'n bass world seemed either sucked up either into binary masturbation (Goldie) or jazz-obsessed noodling (Roni Size), here comes a band that can find the cheekier side of the proto-serious genre. A cover of 2 LONE SWORDSMEN's "Unity Gain" shows up here in the form of an American bonus track, that's good. The gorgeous "Kid Sista" is closer to the wonderful BOARDS OF CANADA than it has any right to be, that's good too. Although the truly evil "Intron.IX" has to be heard to be believed. This is an important moment in dance music. Soothing ambient, smiley techno, finger-thumping breakbeat, so many varying styles are all in one place and pushed into one core genre...and this is not a mix album. Yes, the dentist drilling looseness and playfulness doesn't always work. When it does, though, it's one of the most refreshing and amazingly eclectic things the genre has heard in ages.

     7. HARDKNOX - Hardknox

     Former Skint act, but don't let that scare you off. They may have tenuous connections to even good ol' Normie himself (member Lindy Layton used to be in BEATS INTERNATIONAL), but they seem to go more for the Fat Of The Land than FATBOY. Think Big Beat again (sorry) if it had a nasty, hangover-already-at-night glower. Think of Keith Flint's evil STAR TREK mustached-twin. Then add a few decibels and a lot of guitars. That's HARDKNOX, and most of the time it's phenomenal work. The opener "Coz I Can" is a slow monster of a song that will surely crack windows down the block, and the motor-driven "Psychopath" coupled with the down-'n-dirty "Who's Money" doesn't care how many innocent bystanders they roll over...but it's the single "Come In Hard" that is truly spectacular. A blitzkrieg of a song, it starts like a conventional Big Beat attempt, but then -- without warning -- rolls into an avalanche of drums, vocals (by Schoolly D, no less), and thundering beats. The rest of the album tends to overstay its welcome, but with songs like the above, who can whine that much? When the album is on-track, it's just about everything THE PRODIGY has ever threatened to do.

     6. THE FLAMING LIPS - The Soft Bulletin

     Oh man. The band that did "She Don't Use Jelly"? The one that sounded like they were trying to outdo (don't want to say it...) WEEN? Don't worry. It's still good. And despite some quite over-zealous exposure this year in all the magazines and inkies, the album is sincerely worth every noisome side-bit they throw down your throat. When THE FLAMING LIPS are bad, they're bad. Like BECK or THE BEASTIES BOYS in their most, "look how wacky we can be" moods. But when they're good, they're great. Taking everything from Brian Wilson-like melodies, post-rock's predilection of All Things Fuzzy, and a bizarre sense of lyricism (think spider bites and Superman), they manage to do the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink method with much class. Songs take abrupt, but lovely turns. Choirs sweep in when you least expect them to. Moving sensitivity (aforementioned "Waitin' For Superman") pops up when you thought it could never be done. They're a lot like the BENTLEY RHYTHM ACE of American indie rock, but with gongs instead of drum machines. And in a world of BRITNEY LIMP TORTOISE ROCK's, this is something of a defiant message that -- indeed -- not everything experimental and interesting has to be from outside magic America's borders.

     5. THE OLD 97's - Fight Songs

     Latest happy-music/sad-lyrics effort from the geeks who know how. This time with more pop hooks than ragged country-billy rock. Those accustomed to breathy, over-accented British bands will reel in terror with these pop writers with a twang (and a lead singer who looks all of 14 years old), but this is an outstanding step in the realm of alt-country. WILCO went the "fast-slow" route with Summerteeth this year with varying success. I guess we'll give 'em that. THE OLD 97's here, on the other hand, tackle the hybrid genre with such glee and simplicity that it makes most any other band look foolish in their "concept album" suits and ties. And who cares if they don't get the hype? You might look cool in a club somewhere name-checking your MERCURY REV's or your OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL's to strut your "I know good American music" stuff, but it matters little against the sheer enjoyment factor this album pulls off easier than jello underoos. And just wait until you hear the overtly-simple, completely touching, career-classic "Valentine." Few bands from any country could replicate the jovial creative success of this album this year. Few bands would want to. Which just makes it all that more special.

     4. ULTRASOUND - Everything Picture

     Suck it up now, suck it up, suck it up. One of the most anticipated albums of 1999 finally got released and not many people liked it. It's easy to hear why, with two CD's full of discordant wails and oddly-shaped songcraft. Despite all this, the album is something worth exploring over and over again. Sure lead singer Tiny's screams crack on nearly every melodic rise, sure bassist Vanessa's fantastic backing vocals are never brought up enough in the mix, sure the immense noise of the album takes a concentrated effort, but all of this is a blend that is both unique and fascinating. With so much that tempts the listener to turn away, it's a brave move for a band. Sadly, it's also probably an eventually remote move as after all the hoopla (and departing producers), the band seemed to be on a planet left only with themselves. It's as if ULTRASOUND recorded an album just for their own interest despite all the flurry surrounding them. So it's a pleasant surprise that us bystanders can actually peek in through telescopes and get something weighty out of all of it. The call-to-music-fans'-arms "Stay Young" or the mind-shattering explosion of the final title-track makes you want to repeat high-school moves with buying a backpack to write the band's name all over it with a magic marker. Make no mistake: this is a good album. A sprawling album. A cacophonic album. Though one that just hinted at the potential for a band that sadly disappeared as quickly as they came out of nowhere. So the next time you're out at night, look up at the sky, and imagine a band playing on some remote planet to a distant audience. That's probably all they wanted anyway.

     3. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS - Surrender

     There once was a time when losing your head with a smile on your face was a good thing. There were a bunch of swirly things flying about, the sun was shining down on your back, and everything was in a bit of a pleasant haze. There were, let's face it, lots of colours, man. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS have indeed gone "psychedelic." So while any form of "nu psychedelia" can go piss off up into six elephants' anuses for all I care, THE CHEMICALS take a different approach to the influence and create a combination of their roaring beats/house-rhythms/indie songcraft skills with a new feeling of colourful optimism and loose gratification. Yes, smile. Taking the moves first made with songs like the name-checking "Private Psychedelic Reel" and the gorgeous remix of SPIRITUALIZED "I Think I'm In Love," we are served a new palette of more airy, breezy, chemical beats which work on a whole new level. Before it was a bombing raid of big beats and sirens, now it's an album for doing those hippy, "whizzy" finger-moves across your face. No doubt then that the speaker-testing "Music: Response" and the low drops of "Under The Influence" will be a surprise to most people accustomed to having their, <*cough*>, rocks blocked.

     It doesn't hold up entirely well with a bit too much 4/4 house standards ("Out of Control") or meandering, accidental "interludes" ("Orange Wedge" or the title-track...the latter which essentially destroys the buildup of the yet-another-career-high class of "Hey Boy Hey Girl"). But when the album takes the more quiet, acoustic turns (no lie), it's an impeccable move. Both "Asleep From Day" and "Dream On" are completely unlike anything THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS have done before, and they're so damn good that you tend to wonder why the band never went this direction before. There's more too. Capping off the quality, "The Sunshine Underground" is one of the best songs of any year, with escalating complexity and sunset-soaked splendor that will leave you beaming at every stranger you pass down the street. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS might not be as "hard" as they were before, but their shade-wearing psychedelic mood swing this time around is exactly what was needed to shake things up a bit. Far out, man.

     2. SUEDE - Head Music

     Something feels cold. You blow hot air into your hands as somebody gives you a blank stare from across the street. You head for a cab, but it just coats you with exhaust. It's too much. So you decide to walk through the alley to find who you were looking for in the first place. And then -- suddenly -- you feel something at your back. Something hard. Something metallic. Something cold.

     This is a new SUEDE. No longer filled with escapades of back-seat sex and trashy guitars, this time they got a new agenda. And it's a clinical, slyly emotional move focusing on finely-tuned fashion victims and crisp electronics that will leave you breathless after every listen. If SUEDE before now were about the wanton feeling of an outcast, the surge of released sexuality, and all the confusion it all entails, the SUEDE that now exists is one about cynical hangovers, clenched regret, and deserved euphoria. The difference between, say, dog man star and Head Music is that while both have a distinct sense of claustrophobia, the old album was fueled by desire and this recent album is fueled by a peace of mind struggling to stay alive. Old SUEDE = want. New SUEDE = need. And if you are open to the change, there is little to find wrong in the new, cold stares of the band.

     Faltering in the meandering maneuvers of the slinky "Asbestos" or the disappointing "He's Gone," the album remains far from a contender for Best Album By This Band competition, but what we have here is a gem that nobody should shrug off with self-defeating Butler Vision (if one wants to listen to a Gelfling mimic Dana Carvey doing his impression of Neil Young, more power to you). The batting average with these here fellas is so high and consistent, it's extraordinary. No rational heart would ever turn away the truly lilting "Everything Will Flow" (the most sing-along-inducing chorus this year? Probably...), the magnificently light "She's In Fashion," or the delightfully stupid duo of "Elephant Man" and "Head Music" (scream that last song to your neighbours). Nobody should convince themselves that "Can't Get Enough" doesn't make them want to stomp across the city or that "Crack In The Union Jack" doesn't make them want to build a lonely bunker in the hillsides. This is extremely superior songwriting in every sense of the word, and the slow realization that both the dedicated fans and the outside world are quietly dismissing this album is a travesty.

     Also -- and I couldn't care less how many times I repeat myself -- the album wouldn't truly be timeless if it weren't for a song like "Down." With its crystalline beat and decadent swirls of despair, it's one of those flawless songs to play very late at night when you feel the world has left you behind. This is SUEDE at their best. If the next album consists of about 12 versions of this song, this planet would be a better place.

     So if the rest of the world seems as distant to this album as they think the album itself is, oh well. People with ears know what matters, and they can open themselves to new modifications to one of the most phenomenal bands ever to come out of the U.K. Its seeming coldness is just a new kind of Kubrick-like empathy. The emotions still exist. The musical creativity is still alive. They're just staying in the dark alleys instead of lying in the gutter. Good reason to still be alive? Absolutely. Head Music just might be too sly for the mainstream or tunnel-eyed fans, but it's just great enough to succeed like clockwork.

     1.) JAMES - Millionaires

     The outcasts of even the outcasts. The kids at school that were picked on by everybody...even the other freaks. So they fought back. Bravely. With such verve and enthusiasm it'd make Richard Ashcroft proud. Nearly every song has HUGE choruses and BIG production values and POUNDS AND POUNDS of individualistic idealism. Unfortunately, after about seven tracks of amazing music, the album takes a total nose-dive quicker than a black cat trying to evade Pepe LePew. Which makes the entire, high-profile affair a bit of a mess. At the end of the day, a superb mess, but still a mess. After all, the band deserves to have even their confusing, patchy, marvelous shouts heard.

     So I hope I'm not shouting my mouth off: Millionaires is certainly not worthy of "Best Album o' Year" accolades. Not with such a shaky cohesion. But there's one song that just takes it high and above over virtually anything else done this year. Of course, I'm talking about "Just Like Fred Astaire." The song is so astounding, uplifting, and just plain stunning, that any of the other songs on this album (or elsewhere) are just side dishes. This is a song to fall in love to, be in love with, sing to a loved one, and lovey love love. It's seriously superb.

     If it seems tacky to put such a flawed album on the shoulder of "Best Album" lists, so be it. Sometimes it's nice to be swept away with one particular moment that makes everything else seem silly to get in the way. Hasty? Unprofessional? Shut your gaping pie-hole, and go memorize some more pages of the Trouser Press Guide you sad, sad twit. "Just Like Fred Astaire" is of such quality, it's so fucking good, it takes everything close to it up to another standard. It makes it okay to let it be the sole pinnacle of entire 12 months of music. And if you disagree, I couldn't care less. I'll still be blasting the song and getting close to the feeling of true joy no matter what anybody says. Which is an extraordinary feat in this day and age.

     Kudos to JAMES. Kudos to "Just Like Fred Astaire." Kudos to Kudos (peanut-butter rules). 1999 might have been a terrible year in many ways, but its horrors are so much less when we can experience something as good as this. A "slump" year my ass.

     <dramatic pause>

     So that's that. 1999 in a nutshell.

     But you know what? Something has been bugging me. None of these albums, none of them, are even remotely as good as they should be. I will certainly be turning the particular majesties of albums like Millionaires or Head Music over and over in my thankful head up to and after my death, but still...shouldn't we get something more?

     None of these albums are perfect, none of them are masterpieces, none of them have 100 percent memorable tracks. Even the best efforts this year have been flawed, odd, patchy, or any and all of the above. And none of them are a band's best work. I mean, Surrender is a wigged out, cozy, sun-through-the-curtains type of album, but it's quite weak compared to the brutal immensity of Dig Your Own Hole. THE FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE created a pop-tastic effort, but still one lacking truly classic singles. Although it just missed the list, How I Learned To Love The Bootboys is no England Made Me. And Head Music is no dog man star. Millionaires is no Laid.

     Where did 1999 go wrong? Is music dead? It's not, as just this rather forced Top 10 list implies, but it just doesn't seem as -- I don't know -- fresh, startling...alive. Does it mean something that the best album this year was actually The Stone Roses, a reissue of an album that's ten years old? That the only song that beat JAMES' delightful "Just Like Fred Astaire" as Most Meaningful Song Of The Year was a resurrected, ancient demo of "Waterfall"? Maybe I'm just hearing what I want to hear -- and that's probably the first sign that crockety old music fan fogey genes are kicking in -- but I don't think so. Again, none of even the best bands out there are putting out their best work in 1999. What does that say? How does it feel to realize that? If music isn't dead, is it just getting worse?

     That's it. If a re-release beats out all other albums put out this year, I can only say so much. As much as I adore hours upon hours of music this year, it's not enough. Sorry. I think I should have boycotted 1999 in the first place. Would've saved me some time. Better luck next year.

     After all, we deserve so much more.